Yasukuni Shrine: a childrens pamphlet

“Yasukuni Shrine should be kept at a great distance from politics and the frenzy of the media,”
Former Prime Minister Aso, quoted in the Asahi Shinbun

Yasukuni Shrine is a Shinto shrine in Tokyo, Japan that memorializes the war dead that have fought for Japan. Every country has its war memorials, but the Shrine is a source of controversy for its veneration of soldiers from the First and Second Sino-Japanese wars and by extension World War II. The latter includes some in the military later classified as Class A war criminals after WWII. Occasionally state officials have made an official visit there to pay respects to the kami or spirits there, which usually draws heavy criticism from places like China and Korea, but to be honest I understood the whole situation very little, and why this one Shrine in particular is such a flash point.

In Tanabe’s book Religions of Japan in Practice, one article by Richard Gardner really clarified all this to me. He writes:

While many younger Japanese rarely if ever think of the shrine, it has remained, nevertheless, a site of contention and dispute. [In Japan] Traditionalists, conservatives, and the Association of Bereaved Families (Izokukai) have, since the mid-1950’s waged a campaign to reestablish the connection between Yasukuni Shrine and the state. Liberals, leftists, Christians, and others have fought to oppose any effort to reforge such a link….For many Asian countries, Yasukuni Shrine is a symbol of Japan’s aggression during the war years. (pg. 334)

Gardner then provides a translation of a children’s pamphlet in Japanese about the shrine published in 1992. He uses the term “gods” here to mean “kami”, but I believe this is incorrect, so I have rendered it back to “kami”. Otherwise, this is the pamphlet as he translates it. The first part talks a little bit about history, a welcome message, and so on. Pretty innocuous stuff.

Then it introduces a cute, cartoon character1 named “Poppo” the Pigeon. “Poppo” is also the sound pigeons make in Japanese, so no surprise there. Poppo the Pigeon answers questions like so:

Q: Who built Yasukuni Shrine and when?

A: Yasukuni Shrine is a shrine with a long tradition and was built over 120 years ago in 1869… (and so on)

Q: What does “Yasukuni” mean?

A: The Honorable Shrine Name “Yasukuni Shrine” was bestowed on the shrine by Emperor Meiji. The “Yasukuni” in the name means “Let’s make our country a place of tranquility and gentle peace, an always peaceful country” and reflects the great and noble feelings of Emperor Meiji. All the “kami” who are worshiped at the Yasukuni Shrine gave their noble lives in order to protect Japan while praying for eternal peace, like the Emperor Meiji, from the depths of their heart.

Ok, that last part was maybe a bit of propaganda, but nothing too surprising. However, this next question caught my eye:

Q: What “kami” are worshipped at Yasukuni Shrine?

A: (some early history stuff about the Meiji Restoration)…However, to protect the independence of Japan and the peace of Asia surrounding Japan, there were also — though it is a very sad thing — several wars with foreign countries. In the Meiji period there were the Sino-Japanese War and the Russian-Japanese War; in the Taisho period, the First World War; and in the Shōwa period, the Manchurian Incident, the China Incident, and then the Great Pacific War (the Second World war)….War is truly a sorrowful thing. But it was necessary to fight to firmly protect the independence of Japan and to exist as a peaceful nation prospering together with the surrounding countries of Asia. All those who offered up their noble lives in such disturbances and wars are worshiped at Yasukuni Srhine as “kami”.

Here I feel like I am reading some pretty big contradictions here, especially with the invasion of Korea, then Manchuria, China and then the Second World War. Here they mention “peace of Asia surrounding Japan” or “prospering together with the surrounding countries of Asia”, though if I were Korean or Chinese, I probably would not appreciate this idea of enforced peace.

Still, the pamphlet goes on:

Q: Could you please teach us some more about the gods?

A: Do you all know how many “kami” there are at Yasukuni Shrine? There answer is over 2,467,000! There are this many kami in front of all of you who have come to worship here! Let me tell you about the “kami”….(mentions of Tokugawa-era thinkers like Sakamoto Ryoma, etc)….Let me tell you a little about the Great Pacific War, which took place over fifty years ago. When the American Army attacked Okinawa, there were junior high school students who stood up and resisted with the soldiers….Most of those boy and girl students fell in battle. Now they are enshrined in Yasukuni Shrine and are sleeping here peacefully.

Wikipedia seems to offer a different version of this:

Many of the Japanese prisoners were native Okinawans who had been impressed into the Army shortly before the battle and were less imbued with the Japanese Army’s no-surrender doctrine. When the American forces occupied the island, the Japanese took Okinawan clothing to avoid capture and the Okinawans came to the Americans’ aid by offering a simple way to detect Japanese in hiding. The Okinawan language differs greatly from the Japanese language; with Americans at their sides, Okinawans would give directions to people in the local language, and those who did not understand were considered Japanese in hiding who were then captured.

Or another article in the NY Times offers a view from native Okinawans on the subject.

To continue the rest of the question/answer from the pamphlet, the explanation continues:

There are also those here who took the responsibility for the war upon themselves and ended their own lives when the Great Pacific War ended. There are also 1,068 who had their lives cruelly taken after the war when they were falsely and one-sidedly [sic] branded as “war criminals” by the kangaroo court of the Allies who had fought Japan. At Yasukuni Shrine we call these the “Shōwa Martyrs” [including Tōjō Hideki, translator’s addition, not mine], and they are worshiped as “kami”.

Now, I begin to see the issue here: Yasukuni Shrine and those in Japan who actively support it are fostering an unapologetic view of the wars in the 20th century, using terms like “necessity”, “prosperity” and “injustice” at the hands of the Allies.

My view on the subject is that like certain people I knew back in the US,2 there are just some people in Japan and probably every country who believe their particular culture can do no wrong, and any efforts to defend it are justified. All else is secondary. I’ve never liked this “tribal” view of the world myself, but there’s plenty of people who live by this view, and are unapologetic to the end.

It’s a shame as I feel it disregards the Buddhist view that all beings are interdependent, such that their suffering is our suffering too, and so on. The other problem is that, as one professor told us in college one time, that the trouble with Imperialism and Imperialist thinking is that each time you expand, now you have to worry more and more about the larger border you’re protecting, which leads to more expansion and greater worries. It never ends.

But it’s also clear that not every soldier who fought in Japan’s military agrees with Yasukuni Shrine’s view of the world. I found this story from the People’s Daily in China touching, or this one about another soldier. Also, as quoted from another post, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of those who fought have been haunted by whatever they did elsewhere in Asia. Such is the glory of war.

I don’t have anything real clever or thought-provoking to end this blog post with, so I’ll just leave it at that. Feel free to post your thoughts, but keep it cool, ok?

P.S. Another backlogged post I wanted to release now.

P.P.S. The official website of Yasukuni Shrine in English. Regardless of my thoughts on the subject, I feel it’s essential to see all sides represented.

P.P.P.S. More on the complexities of politics surrounding the shrine. A nice, balanced article, I thought, and interesting how different politicians react differently. Also, note that some politicians find other ways of respecting the dead without having to pay tribute to the shrine.

1 For some reason, I’ve noticed that Japanese love to put cartoon characters for everything. Even construction signs and such. No joke. :-/

2 I remember hearing about somewhere in Texas where they re-enact the Atomic Bombings every year with an airshow and a fake “drop” using a big bag of flour or something. I wonder how they would feel if they talked with someone like Nagai Takashi who survived the Nagasaki Bombing, but lost his wife and died a few years later from cancer. It seems people on all sides never learn.😦

7 thoughts on “Yasukuni Shrine: a childrens pamphlet

  1. Lots of food for thought here.
    Enough for an essay or book.

    It’s impolitic of Japanese politicians to attend the shrine, but I suppose they see a larger gain in Japan than they lose in international standing. I see that the Emperor still supports the shrine through twice yearly offerings although he no longer visits since 1978.

    It must be hard to reconcile the imperialist past. More so if you were conquered. How can they honour their war dead and not offend?, who gets honoured? Should they bother?

    I wonder what happened in 1978 to allow the enshrinement of the war criminals? (Apparently all it takes is to write their names in a book and have a ceremony)

    I do think the historical issues are more complex than a children’s pamphlet can cover.

    It’s not unreasonable to characterise Japans wars as being founded on what it saw as self preservation and security interests. Korea and Manchuria to counter the Russians. Pearl harbour because of an oil and economic embargo. Doesn’t make them right, and no-one was happy about it, but it wasn’t merely aggression and a land grab.
    (One wonders what the world would be like if Perry had left the Japanese to themselves. Or if Japan pursued policies to undermine American, British, Dutch, French colonialism in Asia and fostered revolution and independence in a cold war war by proxy sort of way. Then got it’s resources in trade from it’s new friends)

    The peace-loving part sounds a very post 1945 re-imagining of the Japanese collective character. Strange for right wing writings. Article 9 is an amazing ideal. I wish people would put effort into living and creating than glorifying death and destruction.

    You couldn’t call the IMTFE a kangaroo court but how it it was conducted and the the amount of disagreement (from non-Japanese jurists) about what it did and how it did it leaves a lot of room for neo-nationalists to claim it as such.
    I’m inclined to agree with Justice Pal’s dissenting opinion. (I wonder how he’d feel about the monument to him at Yasukuni however, or how his family feels about it)
    The Class A: crimes against peace seem dubious as a crime to indict on. Class B: conventional war crimes and Class C: crimes against humanity were more than enough and on more solid ground.

    I can also see where they get the idea of martyrdom from. It’s generally accepted that the defendants took the fall for Emperor Hirohito (Showa). I can’t say I can accept the idea of Hirohito as an ignorant pawn either.

    I also wonder why there has never been a large independence movement in Okinawa. Especially around 1972, although I couldn’t see America granting it in preference to giving the territory back to Japan.

    I recommend Chapter 15 of John Dower’s Embracing Defeat if anyone wants to read about the trials and postwar Japan. The whole book is very readable and interesting. The period isn’t as clear cut as you might think.

    This article by The Independent has more detail on the politics of Yasukuni.

    (apologies for the long comment)

  2. Hi Robert,

    Thanks a lot for the extra link and the excellent comments. It’s interesting how Germany and Japan have dealt with their wartime past in such totally opposite ways, and how it seems to have resulted today. Also, good point about Okinawa’s lack of independence movement. I have no idea why that is the case, but I won’t presume to guess either.

    Once in college, we had a guest lecturer who was one of soldiers from teh American occupation, and was one of those who helped write the Japanese constitution. She was a secretary in the Army, but was suddenly tasked to help with the part about woman’s suffrage. She was a really nice lady, and from the lecture I got the impressino that a lot of the American Occupation stuff was very impromptu and shooting from the hip. They definitely seemed to be in uncharted territory. The US had never invaded another country (territorial grabbings in North America aside), let alone to write someone else’s constitution.

    I suspect it was the same with the IMTFE, for which war crimes and tribunal were pretty new to them. But like so many other things, hindsight is 20/20, so I can’t presume either to know what was going through their minds.

    I suspect though that as long as the US maintains a presence and alliance with Japan, then Japan will not have to worry about it’s neighbors enough to warrant any real change in policy. I hate to admit it, but I think it’s true. Same with certan other allies of the US in the world (don’t want to open a can of worms and mention names).

  3. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a tribal view of the world, or “us vs. them” is just not healthy for Japan or any country.

  4. The US had never invaded another country (territorial grabbings in North America aside)
    Spanish American War 1898 (Cuba, Philippines, Guam)
    leading directly to
    Philippine American War 1898 – 1902 / 1913
    famously written about by Kipling and Mark Twain.
    Boxer Rebellion 1900
    getting 7% of the reparations
    Overthrow and Annexation of Hawaii 1893/1898

    America I’m afraid had an imperialist phase (outside the land grabs on the North American continent) just like the rest of the world powers at the time.

    The guest lecturer wouldn’t have been Beate Sirota Gordon by any chance? She seems an interesting woman. I’d love to meet her.
    She wasn’t just someone plucked from the typing pool however. She grew up in Japan. Fluent in Japanese, college educated in America. She was a 22 year old European Jewess which must have given her a unique viewpoint compared to everyone else at SCAP.
    or Elenor Hadley? who lived in Seattle?
    (I am led to believe after a conversation with my wife that many Japanese of the current generation may not be aware their constitution was drafted by Americans, let alone that a 22year old woman had a hand in it.)

    Germany’s case was different I’d say. Part of the problem in Japan was they were trying to replicate the Nuremberg Trials.
    I think Germany doesn’t / didn’t have to worry about it’s wartime invasions. It’s guilt as a nation is tied up in the Holocaust and Nazism.
    While Japan’s war crimes were terrible there was nothing as systematic as the Holocaust nor a comparable movement to Nazism. The Imperial cult? But they wanted to keep the Emperor…
    The Cold War and then the Treaty of Paris quickly brought Germany back into the club so to speak. Italy never seemed to have a post-war problem in the same way.
    The Cold War also brought Japan back quickly, but stopped any fledgling reconciliation with China now the dreaded communists had come to power. Japan’s fate was firmly tied to America.

    Ultimately they will need to reconcile with China. I doubt China is a military threat but it’s a huge market that Japan will need. To sell stuff to, buy resources from and get an immigrant workforce to support it’s ageing population. A good step would be to get rid of compulsory English in schools and offer an elective between Chinese, Korean, Russian and English. If you can’t talk to your neighbours properly you’re making problems for yourself.

    Us vs Them. People are selfish. It’s easier to be selfish in a like minded group. Language helps you see another viewpoint and break out of your groupings.

  5. Oops, good call on the US history lesson. I admit I did rather poor in high school US history courses. 😀

    Yes, I believe it was Beate Gordon whom I saw lecture. She really was an interesting woman and I would’ve like to talk to her more. Not sure if she lives in Seattle or not.

    As for the rest, no disagreements here. Too many good points to comment on, and my last oncall shift really wore me out, so I am just going to get some sleep. 😉

  6. I had no idea that the Japanese were so shameless. I always thought they were an honorable people. I honestly think bygones should be bygones; but to lie about their history like that? Everybody else knows what happened, there are photographs and bodies from the atrocities these people have committed. Their lies are a disgrace not only to the dead, but to the living who permit this to happen.

  7. Hi K and welcome,

    Let’s be careful and clarify that this post pertains to Yasukuni Shrine, and those within Japanese society who endorse its view. Japan is a large country, its society has many different views and groups, so we should be careful to not assume all Japanese think and feel this way. I know from first-hand experience that some Japanese love Korea and Korean culture, and some definitely don’t. Similarly in the US, some people have strong views one way or another.

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